You Don’t Need Personalization

So you say. A zoology of naysayers and naysaying.

In personalization, there’s a zoology of naysayers and the things they naysay. Just the same, it’s critical to engage constructively with dissenting views. I’ve learned a lot this way. You might, too.

If you know how to spot them, the dissenting arguments on personalization (see a working definition and background here) are few, but consistent, in conforming to a common line of complaint:

  1. The critic. For some, personalization is synonymous with filter bubbles, overzealous retargeting, or dark patterns. It can’t be done virtuously.
  2. The skeptic. For us, personalization is a hill too high to climb. We can’t execute reliably or effectively.
  3. The pundit. The personalization gap is a disillusioning horse race of have and have-nots. The game is rigged.
  4. The pragmatist. We don’t need personalization to compete. It’s irrelevant.

If you and I are having a first conversation about personalization, I have to confess I am becoming good at sussing out which, if any, of these dissenting voices tugs at you most urgently. I also find myself making reference to some pat answers to these critiques:

  • For critics, I ask them to consider Spotify’s productization of algorithmically rich discovery tools so good they become celebrated marquee features, like Discover Weekly. Then consult a content subject matter, whom should be your first line of intelligence on the potential user benefit of personalized experience in your digital ecosystem. (My colleagues and I are at work on a sensible framework, progressive personalization, for ensuring it enhances user value and the user experience, while also driving business results.)
  • For skeptics and pundits alike, I encourage them to consult the hierarchy of personalized experience. With a trusted guide’s help, there are sensible entry points of every size, scale and price point now. Getting going is about building capability and muscle mass for where user behavior is leading us: digital’s algorithmically-centered near future.
  • For pragmatists? Read on.

“Personalization is not for us.”

Like any echo chamber, this line of dissent invites having its premise punctured.

While their motivations are sincere and their thinking generally sound, I’ve come to see the rhetorical flourish of personalization doubters—“ehh, it’s not for us”—as a kind of unintended disservice by digital professionals to themselves, their teams and organizations.

Allow me to unpack that accusation.

It’s not that they must necessarily be wrong. Inasmuch as the conversation around personalization is itself stunted, complex and confusing, these summary judgments are merited.

Taking a pass on personalization efforts in your organization is not foolish. But wishful thinking parading as informed speculation, on the other hand, does no one any favor. So I wanted to take a little time to talk about what we’re talking about when we talk about personalization.

That sidelines calculation is not misplaced nor is the root fear unmerited. But it is still ultimately wrong. Leaning into personalization is a matter of strategy and of digital evolution.

Strategy is the art of getting where you need to go

Fundamentally, technology adoption is a matter of business strategy. It’s about getting from the current state to a desired future one.

The greatest strategy will always be dogged focus and a solid plan for getting from point A to point B, distractions called out and managed to the side. In my consulting travels, banishing under-performing assets and dead-weight initiatives has always been a sound recipe.

But know that results speak plainly and loudly, and that neither personalization nor artificial intelligence, nor your competitors, nor the market, nor user behavior, are waiting on you. Your digital evolution, of course, is entirely on you.

Personalization is not a solution in search of a problem. It’s how the fabric of digital is evolving.

The so-called pragmatist tack, that personalization might be fine for retailers, but unnecessary for them, is a familiar one. But it disregards the wider shift that’s now underway, as digital touchpoints multiply, user expectations and loyalty respond to user centricity, and the need for more finely structured and intelligent, contextual content experiences grow.

Sure, personalization’s star shines brightly in social media, entertainment and ecommerce. (As Shana Pilewski notes, Gartner says personalization is the foremost priority among retailers in 2017.) But the richness of its applications are only being felt now, as new startups crop up offering specific recommender heuristics for elearning or content consumption, for example.

In fact, personalization is a landscape of related technologies, as I’ve said elsewhere. Without being exhaustive about it, consider this waterfront:

  • search and discovery UX, from browse to recommender systems
  • push notifications
  • conversational interfaces (as dissimilar as bots and voice)
  • growth testing and optimization

These are all forms of personalized experience. Are these, too, as irrelevant to the so-called pragmatist?

I could go on.

Baldly put, saying personalization is irrelevant is tantamount to saying search on Google, or reach on Facebook, is inconsequential. It’s hard to fathom, though I welcome corrective feedback.

Far from being a tech alone, when I talk to product management leaders today, I routinely hear one or another variation of “personalization is the product”: that personalization is suffused in so much of table stakes product feature development today.

Amazon, Netflix, Spotify: The motivations are diverse, the outcomes clear

Hype is unhelpful, everyone knows that. Pull the curtain back, however, and it’s plain to see that—for the poster children who’ve popularized its use, titans like Amazon, Netflix and Spotify—personalization’s benefits have themselves never been about personalization per se, but a clearly identified benefit.

Amazon: Drive transactions. Accelerate customer conversions by helping them frictionlessly navigate a vast sea of product choices.

Netflix: Drive consumption. Bring anytime, anywhere film and TV entertainment viewing to the mainstream, catering to a diverse and global range of customer tastes.

Spotify: Drive engagement. Do the same, starting with music. Productize new ways of bundling that media for different user impulses for discovery and consumption.

What do these companies all have in common? Aside from large corpuses of content and data, and their push to shift user habits and behaviors, they have become savvy players in each and every area of the wider personalized technology landscape listed above.

Are these business outcomes inconsequential to you? Let me know in the comments, pragmatists.

Still, this neat piecing apart the personalized value proposition may not always hold true. We may be in the early stages of an acceleration around personalization. For a new generation of digital brands, perhaps best exemplified by StitchFix, personalization is so core to the value proposition as to be inseparable from every element of the business and experience.

The four enduring arguments for personalization

So, when you elect to forego a personalization program this year, or your product teams veer from testing to recommendations to vague bot or voice UX prototypes, remember that personalization is an umbrella concept that spans each of these, and makes individual point solutions incrementally harder without a holistic, omnichannel view of the user.

And remember the results you are voting down when you decide that personalized product opportunity is not for your organization:

  1. Performance—cutting through the noise of irrelevant content, interactions and page-load times
  2. Focused efficiency—zeroing the business or organization in on key performance indicators and the user flows of highest concentrated business value
  3. User centricity — delivering and benchmarking for user value through contextual intelligence
  4. Differentiation—providing fresh and memorable modes for discovery, utility and delight that stand apart from the competition

There is no shortage of gaudy success metrics for those who’ve personalized, (I suspect the smash-ups of poorly run programs are equally dramatic!), but where I find it simpler to focus, argumentatively, in personalization’s favor is with the enduring potency of these generalized benefits.

The one counterargument: When to pause on personalization

I haven’t come across an example where outright deferring on personalization was the clear course of action, but I do encounter those embarking upon a personalization effort for whom I do recommend hitting pause.

(I’ve shoplifted with affection from Kathy Baughman and Kevin Nichols on this front. Watch them present here and see more of their thinking here.)

The case for pausing, not pursuing, a personalization program is clearer (and smarter) than it looks. Too much of the received wisdom on personalization elides the necessary hard work to get to a smoothly functioning operation.

I’ve done a client exercise with great success that helps organizations scope, shape and price what personalized product opportunity is for them.

I’ll have more to say about this in the future.

Personalization is the future, sooner

There’s no need to truck out old Jeff Bezos shareholder letters. Personalization already sells itself to those who are in market and alert to their competitors’ efforts. There’s a certain self-evident quality to the value proposition of a technology that aids and abets users and brands alike.

Said another way, results are results and there’s no arguing with them.

But if you needed any further reason for reconsideration, it’s called AI.

You won’t move ahead—you won’t be able to move forward at all—with AI, and with operating confidently in an algorithmically-driven, feed-centric distribution environment, in the future if you do not invest in building capability and wherewithal with personalization much sooner than then. There will be no leapfrog moment, no machine-learning silver bullet. Without knowing your users, and learning how to deliver content in context, you are rudderless headed into that horizon line.

All our distant tomorrows have a way of becoming today.

Don’t personalize? Sounds simple.

It is. You don’t progress.